December 11, 2006

The strategic libertarian

By: James N. Markels

Former colleague Brink Lindsey stirred up something of a tempest among libertarians last week with his article in The New Republic suggesting that libertarians might be better off leaving the Republicans and looking to the political left for an alliance. Certainly he has a point–the libertarian-friendly Reagan-style GOP is now long gone, replaced by a more religion-based party that is addicted to big-government spending and intrusion. Aside from tax cuts and a flirtation with Social Security privatization, libertarians have seen next to nothing to cheer for in the last six years. Where the Republicans used to reflexively reach for spending cuts and deregulation to please the base, now they bash homosexual unions and immigrants. If anything, talking about a split from the Republicans now is probably too late; we’ve already been abandoned.

Nonetheless, Lindsey’s piece neglects another, more significant schism within libertarianism itself. I call it “purity-test libertarianism.” It’s the insufferable way that libertarians squabble amongst themselves to prove who is more consistent or pure in their ideology.

Originally, groups like the Advocates for Self-Government created little ideology tests to help teach the curious about libertarianism and perhaps even get them to discover that they had libertarian tendencies. But some people started taking their test results as a badge of pride. You know the type. They show up at happy hours seeking to impress others with their rigid dogmatism. In the middle of a discussion about taxes, they’ll chime in with a snotty, “It’s immoral for the government to tax anyone. Taxation should be purely voluntary.”

Voluntary taxation sounds nice and all. But, realistically, it ain’t happening. Might as well work with the world you’re in rather than push for things that don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell, right? But purity-test libertarians (PTLs) don’t budge. They don’t accept anything less than their ideals demand, because that would mean compromising away individual freedoms.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of PTLs out there. And they consider any attempt to work with any political party–or even the political process itself–as tantamount to ideological treason.

In politics there is always give and take. Lindsey suggests, for example, that a consumption tax on energy would be something that libertarians and the left could find agreement on, perhaps in exchange for personal retirement accounts that are carved out of existing Social Security taxes instead of added on. But PTLs would outright reject such a trade. Taxes are theft, remember? And so a PTL would rather get nothing at all rather than do some horse-trading.

Besides, a PTL would argue, there’s no way to get enough libertarian-minded types into any legislature to make a difference. The major parties have everything so tied up that any libertarian legislators, like the smattering of libertarian voters, would always be drowned out.

Libertarians stand to gain a lot from the current political environment, though. With the Republicans and Democrats so closely divided in so many areas of government, even a single vote can be parlayed into influence over policy. Consider the case of Rick Jore, a state congressman in Montana, who started as a Republican but switched parties to become the sole Constitution Party lawmaker. When Republicans lost their majority this year and scrabbled for votes, suddenly Jore’s vote made a big difference. So what happened? Republicans gave Jore the House Education Committee chairmanship, a most disconcerting development for education lobbyists since Jore opposes increasing budgets for the public schools.

It only takes one seat to make a difference in this political climate. Libertarians can make some serious strides toward increasing individual liberty if they reject the PTL impulse and start gaming the system. That means working to get libertarians into Congress, even just one seat at a time. It means thinking seriously about leveraging influence between the major parties, as Lindsey proposes. And it means being willing to make trade-offs to get what you want.

Ask yourself, libertarians, which is better: making deals to get what you want, or getting nothing at all? If you’d rather get nothing, then why bother being a libertarian? Is your purity score really that important?

James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.